A work of art, traditionally a painting or sculpture but nowadays also perhaps a video, an installation, a pile of bricks or an unmade bed, a urinal or other found object, is more than just an object hanging on a wall or standing in a corner, waiting passively to be aesthetically appreciated. It is more. Much more.
In the right place for the right viewer it is also deeply personal, opening links to other places and other times, and opening the door to memories embedded in the mind.
That is what has drawn me in the past to the works of Alan Smith Page (born in Byker 1946, died 2022) and drew me this week to a retrospective exhibition of his paintings that has just opened at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle, and how I justify writing this very personal review.
The exhibition triggered for me, as doubtless it will for many other visitors, memories of Newcastle city centre, of working or shopping there, of visiting the theatre or enjoying a night out in the restaurants and pubs. Memories of places further afield will be triggered for some as well; scenes from places as far apart as Cornwall and Suffolk, Tuscany and New York feature in the show.
Local land and cityscapes, often of North East locations, are a staple of the Biscuit Factory’s exhibitions and they come in many styles by many different artists. Smith Page is one of them. Each of us will have his or her favourite. Smith Page is mine.
Smith Page’s work is post-impressionist in style. When I look at one of his Newcastle street scene I think of nothing more than its, admittedly grander, Parisian equivalents as painted by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), such as the Boulevard Montmartre.
Not that Smith Page was influenced by the Impressionists or any other movement for that matter. According to the Biscuit Factory, his work:
“expresses his fascination with street life and the urban landscape – often depicting crowded streets and markets, with ordinary people going about their day. Alan’s experience of working in a commercial environment taught him to draw both quickly and confidently, and from the late 1960s he became proficient in using Magic Markers on visuals and presentations.
“The medium itself depends upon speed and a confident hand which lent itself to his natural progression into watercolour when moving to a personal and more intimate mode of creativity”.
Expanding on its theme, the Biscuit Factory writes:
“Alan was born in Byker, Newcastle in 1946, the son of a tailor. His talent in art started to develop in his early years at school, and was quickly noticed by his art teacher. Impressed by the promise of Alan’s work, this teacher asked the school’s headmaster to allow Alan to drop his other subjects, and to be given a key to the art room. Alan spent his last year of school working tirelessly to prepare for his interview for Art School, producing a portfolio he could barely carry. To the dismay of his parents, who had secured him an apprenticeship as a marine engineer, Alan was successful in his application. Here his formal introduction into the art world began.
“After finishing art school, Alan began work as a junior interior designer at The Henderson Group. It was here where Alan learned to use watercolours in a commercial setting, having to work fast in order to achieve the tight deadlines set. This world of commercial watercolour helped to inspire Alan’s own art style, which he often described as ‘fast and loose’.
“Alan moved away from interior design in the late 1960s and into the world of Graphic Design and Advertising. Having mastered the use of watercolour, Alan, like many designers at the time, started to experiment with ‘Magic Markers’, again producing work quickly for the likes of Proctor and Gamble. It was during this time in which Alan honed his skills as an artist and illustrator, visualising clients’ ideas and turning them into reality.
“Having spent much of his career in the commercial world of architecture and advertising, Alan accepted a position at Newcastle College in 1977 in the Graphic Design and Advertising department. It was here Alan was able to pass on his knowledge of the world of advertising to his students, who he pushed hard to prepare for the tough world of advertising and graphic design after their studies. This paid off, with students going on to have careers at firms such as Saatchi and Saatchi. Alan would often keep in touch with students, happy to see those from the North East making waves in the London Ad world.
“After a period of illness Alan left the college and began to focus exclusively on his own painting. Though he mainly worked on watercolour for his landscapes and interiors, he also experimented with acrylics for still life and abstracts. This focus on painting led to the start of Alan’s career in the fine art world, with his first one-man exhibition at the Shire Pottery Gallery in 2001.
“Alan exhibited work all over the North East in the following 20 years. While his style often changed and evolved, regularly moving between the mediums of watercolour and acrylic, something always remained within his work which made it undoubtedly recognizable as an Alan Smith Page original. This experimentation was rooted in studio 13 of the Biscuit Factory, where Alan would paint daily to please himself. He never painted for an audience, only to push his own creativity and style in new directions. This left an authenticity in Alan’s work, something which can be seen in his legacy today.”
The Alan Smith Page retrospective is showing at the Biscuit Factory until 8 July. Further information here.